Category Archives: education

Society or Student: What Should Education Serve?

Hap Azizby Hap Aziz

As educators, politicians, employers, technology futurists, and others debate the challenges facing education in the United States, the very basic question of what an education should provide is not often a key component of that debate. When the discussion turns to “common core” or “competency-based learning,” the terminology exposes the bias that there are subject areas or skill sets that are important for our students to master… and that, of course, implies that there are facets of human endeavor that are less important, at least from a public policy and funding standpoint.

At the Learning Impact 2013 conference in San Diego, this was one of the themes woven throughout Dr. Yong Zhao’s keynote address. His comments were provocative but very compelling along this line of reasoning: The greater specificity in education content (exercised through design control from some central, external entity accountable to societal demands), the less likely that students will be able to navigate a creative, entrepreneurial path in life. It is this premise that Dr. Zhao used to buttress his premise that the United States, despite having students that often score near the bottom in world-wide academic performance, produces inventors and innovators and entrepreneurs in much greater proportion than do countries with top test-performing students such as China, for example. While many people in the U.S. have high regard for the Chinese education system, it is instructive to know how non-Americans assess China:

“China must have entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs.”
– Wen Jiabao, Former State Premier

and

“The next Apple or Google will appear, but not in China unless it abolishes its education.”
– Kai-fu Lee, Founding President of Google China

Part of this is a cultural mindset, and in October of 2010, a Gallup poll found the entrepreneurial mindset to be much more prevalent in the U.S. than in China (or even the European Union).

The question on entrepreneurship and culture, Zhao argues, is very much related to the success-or failure-of an education system to squash creativity and independent thought. The reason our workforce is more entrepreneurial is due, at least in part, to the fact that the American education system does such a poor job of educating students in those categories that our society most values.

This is what Steve Wozniak comments about the top-ranked Singapore education system:

“Apple couldn’t emerge in societies like Singapore where ‘bad behavior is not tolerated’ and people are not taught to think for themselves.”

Author and CNN Travel contributor Alexis Ong remarks:

“Wozniak’s comments are really a scathing indictment of the Singapore education system, its strictly regimented curriculum and by-rote study techniques that sustain the city’s “formal culture.”

Consider that Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell, and Larry Ellison all dropped out of college. If we accept the metric that college completion equals education success, then these tech giants are failures by the established education standard. Certainly I’m not arguing that students cast off the repressive chains of education to have a successful and fulfilling life. However, it is extremely important that we as a society understand what we want our education system to accomplish, and if we consider the system to be broken that we understand the actual problem in order to fix the system rather than further remove the ability of creative thought from our students.

I’m not confident that we are paying adequate attention to actual challenge in our seemingly singular pursuit to improve learning outcomes at all levels of the education process. In an article titled “Laptop U” published in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller writes extensively on the topic of MOOCs (massive open online courses), and how many educators as well as legislators see MOOCs as a solution to several types of education challenges. While he acknowledges there is controversy surrounding the use of MOOCs, Heller provides the reasoning of supporters that MOOCs “are designed to insure that students are keeping up, by peppering them with comprehension and discussion tasks,” and they will have high production values (apparently to better engage students).

Yet there is discouraging data. A study cited by Inside Higher Ed concludes that the “average completion rate for massive open online courses is less than seven percent” (strongly suggesting that students are not, in fact keeping up). Early data from Coursera indicates an overall completion rate of seven to nine percent (although Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller argues that this is misleading, as most students enrolled in MOOCs have no intent to complete). Regardless of statistics, it appears that the MOOC strategy is to funnel more students through massively standardized model (whether through implementing common core curriculum or creating large-scale technology-mediated courses). Voices for customizing the education experience to fit individual students and cultivate unique talents and characteristics is a very faint part of the discussion.

The current “crisis” in American education shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Zhao points out that students in the U.S. have scored below the students of other countries over decades. This is not a new phenomenon. However, government spending on education has increased dramatically year over year since the 1960s (some data charts here), and people are demanding accountability for these expenditures. He who pays the piper calls the tune, after all. It is likely that as long as funding dollars continue to be poured into education with little evident or immediate improvement, those in charge of administering the funds will determine what the funds will buy in terms of technology, policy, and curriculum design.

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Filed under accountability, common core, cost of education, education, education course content, education technology, government funding, Hap Aziz, MOOCs, online education, standards

The Joy Stick Is Mightier Than The Pen: A Case For Gaming As An Academic Tool

JT Hudnut headshotby Jason Hudnut
Chief Coordinating Consultant: www.theturnpiketeacher.com

(Note: The following article text is the full version of an incomplete copy inadvertently published originally on April 30, 2013 under the title “The Educator as Parent.”)

I have spent my life immersed in the field of education.  I was raised by educators and it seems as if I may even be raising future educators.  But this is not my defining characteristic.  My time spent as a parent is in my opinion, the true nature of what I have become in my adult years.  Parenting in these modern times has allowed me to introduce the lessons learned during my time in the academic profession into the framework of philosophies that I utilize while raising my family.  Tonight, this blending of my personal and professional life was on exhibit in my household.  My oldest child had to leave school early today due to an illness.  He desperately wanted to make up his missed classwork and find out what his assigned homework for the night was. This shed a tiny yet telling light on the modern and technology based world we live in as parents and educators.

I informed my son to call his classmates to find out this information that he required.  It did not take long before I realized we don’t do it this way anymore. As my child sent texts and contacted friends on social media sites, then asked me to go on the teacher web page and find out if the assignments were posted, I realized we have evolved.  My boy has developed an entirely different way of thinking.  He solved his problem in a modern way and soon he was working on ratios and fractions and writing an essay that his teacher emailed to me in mere seconds after I contacted her.  This led me to thinking of some articles that I had read regarding how today’s young students may be influenced to solve problems and develop a unique set of social skills and strategies that may be influenced by the tools they implore while interacting with peers and playing video games.

Hap Aziz, in his article: “Bringing Computer Games into the Teacher and Learning Environment”, posted on January 04, 2013 in this blog, states,

“Computer games have potential educational value. Computer games have been identified as useful instruments that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge through the adoption of specific learning strategies (a cultural characteristic of the information society), and that computer games present immersive experiences in which learners—the players—develop abilities to solve complex problems in a variety of situations.”

I must give credit to the gaming world as my child’s first major experience in which he needed to utilize a technology based skill set. Not only did he begin to build abilities to solve complex problems within actual gaming situations, he developed knowledge of social media and on-line interaction when he was finally allowed by us, as parents, to enter the multi-player gaming experience via the internet. This was a big step to take and allow as a parent.  But as an educator, I knew that I would guide him with the proper and appropriate etiquette needed to gain knowledge and have fun while also maintaining measures of safety and good conduct.  Not to mention the curiosity that has been sparked and the fact based education he has received while role playing in some of today’s most modern historical based games.  I have since found him often times researching American and world history and even building worlds and reenacting with his Legos and other toys.

My newly rediscovered interest in how gaming could benefit education led me on a web surfing journey.  On this journey, I discovered some insight provided by Agnieszka Wetton on www.Scoop.it, who provided a wonderful statement within her Gaming in Education blog introduction on September 29, 2012.  Wetton stated,

“Over the past decade, the use of digital gaming in education has prompted considerable attention in exploring how and why games might be powerful tools in the classroom. As a result of this interest, there is a considerable body of resources available on Game-based Learning (GBL) and its potential benefits for education and learning.”

I certainly was thrilled to find this information and followed the leads presented on the Scoop.it! web pages.  I have obviously been aware of gaming tools in the classroom and have certainly applied several in my 20 years of teacher and education administration. But this new web surf opened up my eyes to the most modern conversations that will hopefully lead to a modern approach and application of these tools in the classrooms that we teach in and that our children learn in.  Two articles in particular jumped out at me. Both were “scooped” by Wetton. The first one is from: http://trove.nla.gov.au, and is dated September 29, 2012. This scoop referred to a wonderful book titled, What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy by James Paul Gee.

Gee takes an in depth look at how video games benefit individuals.  He investigates the effects on cognitive activity and improvement.  Gee looks deeper into the development of identity building and perception of self in society.  He even presents information regarding the increased ability to follow directives and grasp specific concepts and meanings within the community as a result of gaming and how this improves and enhances the learning process.

As I researched the concepts presented by Gee, I felt as if I had won some sort of court case.  Not only as an educator but as a parent, I have been making a case for the positive benefits that gaming, technology, and on-line interaction have had on the students and children of today.  I found at last, some validity to fuel my stands on the debates over such matters.  But I wanted a bit more proof to make my case.  And I found it as I continued to follow the leads that Wetton scooped on her blog.  My next stop, also found on  http://trove.nla.gov.au, from September 29, 2012 opened my world to the concepts of Marc Prensky.

In his book, Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning! : How Computer and Video Games are Preparing Your Kids for Twenty-First Century Success and How You Can Help, Prensky also builds that case that gaming on computers and game systems can be beneficial to modern children.  He does maintain that a limit needs to be established regarding certain appropriateness and time constraints, but Prensky does believe that in order to be prepared for the 21st century; children stand to make significant gains from the concepts learned in the gaming realm.  He contributes increases in the abilities to collaborate, take and assess risks and build and follow through with strategic planning.  Prensky even goes so far as to show how parents can build on individual ethics and value based growth is attributed to the time spent learning the guidelines, structures, and relationships necessary  while navigating in the gaming world.

So, the next time your kid, or one of your students states how much they would rather be gaming instead of doing homework or studying, you can rest assured that there just may be some benefits to the specific choices that can be made in your response.  We have learned that gaming can be used in the classroom as a powerful academic tool.  Much more work is needed in this field, but the advancements of the home gaming system consoles and personal computer game structures is blazing a trail towards this work.  We can, as parents and educators, make specific choices to perhaps slip a bit of beneficial growth into the pleasure that the modern youth gets out of gaming.

It is necessary to limit the time spent playing as well as being very proactive when it comes to censoring the content that is allowed to be viewed and presented.  But we can all feel comfortable, that…YES…there are unique, and very specific as well as appropriate benefits to the worlds that are introduced to our young ones as they sit in front of that screen and dive into their favorite dream world.  Think about it, most of us only had video games with an X competing against an O in some form of sports of space combat.  We have come a long way as I sit here watching my son role play a character and making tactical decisions during the ride of Paul Revere or The Cuban Missile Crisis, in full three dimensional life-like movie quality graphics.  Hey, can daddy have a turn buddy?

Sources:

Aziz, H. (2013). Bringing Computer Games into the Teacher and Learning Environment. Retrieved from                 https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2013/01/04

Gee, J.P. (2007). What Video Games have to Teach US About Learning and Literacy. Basingstoke:                           Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Retrieved from http://trove.nla.gov.au

Prenksy, M. (2006). Don’t Bother Me, Mom, I’m Learning! : How Computer and Video Games are           Preparing Your Kids for Twenty-First Century Success and How You Can Help. St. Paul, MN:                Paragon House, 2006. Retrieved from http://trove.nla.gov.au

Wetton, A. (2012). Gaming in Education. Retrieved from www.Scoop.it!

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Filed under children, computer games, education, education technology, games, Hap Aziz, Jason Hudnut, technology

The MOOC that fits – Will be the MOOC that Survives.

JT Hudnut headshotby Jason T. Hudnut
Chief Coordinating Consultant:  www.theturnpiketeacher.com

The world of the Massive Open Online Course, better known by the catchy and humorous acronym: MOOC, both fascinates and intrigues me.  With 20 plus years as an educator under my belt, I have seen many versions of teaching as it translates from pre-school to higher education and then again  from public, charter, private, and even to parochial settings.  So the future of how we as educators reach our students has been a thought that wanders in and out of my curious mind on many occasions. I am struck by a comment suggested by Hap Aziz in his article: “Rethinking the Class Paradigm:  The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs”, posted on February 28, 2012 on this blog.  Mr. Aziz states, “Very few educators would argue that there is no difference between teaching cohorts of 20 students or cohorts of 200, 2,000, or even 20,000 students.” I obviously agree with this, but I wonder if we could, as educators, adapt…or better yet…evolve into an instructor capable of reaching and teaching any number of students under our guidance.

Mr. Aziz references Joshua Kim, Director of Learning and Technology for the Master of Health Care Delivery Science program at Dartmouth College, in his article : ”Open Online Courses Are No Substitutes for Classroom Learning” for The U.S. New & World Report.  Mr. Kim states, “Authentic learning requires a two-way dialogue between student and instructor. College teaching at its best is much more than the delivery of content: It’s about the co-construction of knowledge with students and faculty…” Kim continues, “Education is one of those things in life (like friendship) that is based on the relationships between individuals, and therefore is limited in how far it can scale.”  These concepts absolutely nail it for me.  The dialogue between student and instructor and the relationships between the individuals involved in the academic setting has been supporting keystone as I continue to stack the building blocks of my philosophy of education.  It is my desire to reach the student, not only through the curriculum, but within and beyond the strength of the relationship we have developed in the realm of a mutual respect and trust.

The respect that should flow between teacher and student allows us to accept that a learned knowledge from the instructor is being properly evaluated, translated and presented to a willing pupil.  The trust that must be built in this bond lays on a foundation that should already determine the fact that each participant firmly believes in the ability of the other.  The student trusts and respects the knowledge and ability of the instructor.  The instructor, in return, should trust and respect the willingness and ability of the student to learn.  Now…can we, as instructors, translate this relationship with one student to a larger group?  We certainly do this for a class of 20 students, and maybe for a case load of 200 individuals.  We do it over a period of time for 2,000 pupils.  I believe, that we can build up our academic muscles and reach 20,000 students with the same principals of trust and respect, or by whatever means may work for the individuality of each instructor.

Mr. Aziz is absolutely correct though.  To do this, the paradigm needs to shift.  I really was sold on his assertion that suggests, “MOOCs are not courses as much as they are communities.” But I fell in love with his concept of,

“…entering into the scale of a small city.  And when it comes to a city, we understand that no single person (or even small group of people) is responsible for running the whole city. It’s not just the mayor or the city council members. There are hundreds, and even thousands of other official and semi-official roles to be played in the smooth running of a city: police, firefighters, garbage collectors, teachers, and more with whom I interact as a citizen (student) of my city (MOOC) depending on what kind of assistance I need or interaction I seek.”

YES!!!  That is the ticket; a MOOC should be run like a city.  All of the individuals involved have roles to play.  Aziz paints a world where he speaks of meaningful services meet the needs of the community.  He proclaims, “This is where the education community needs to rethink how MOOCs are built and administered, and ultimately what the role of the instructor is to be.”  I believe, this proclamation, as illustrated by similar conversations within the academic community, prove that this shift has already been ushered in.  We, as the educators of today, and even as the former students of yesterday, have given birth to the needs of the future and the evolving of academia.

Doug Holton, of the Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, FL., makes a poignant claim in his article: “What’s the “Problem” with MOOCs?” published for EdTechDev: developing educational technology on May 4, 2012. Holten asserts,

“Especially disturbing is that none of the major MOOC providers have hired anyone trained in Instructional design, the learning sciences, educational technology, course design, or other educational specialties to help with the design of their courses.  They are hiring a lot of programmers and recruiting a lot of faculty, who may have various motivations for participating in these open education experiments.”

If the shift we are seeing is to make any noise at all, here are the first rumblings to echo throughout the halls of our universities, colleges, school yards and all the way down to the dark corners of the software developer’s office cubicles. Now is the time to look at a blending of our talents.  The masses can be reached.  We must bring the talents of those in the classrooms, who are designing, implementing and delivering curriculum, together with the genius of those in the Information Technology field who are able to design, implement and deliver the software that will build the “Massively Open Online Communities” that Hap Aziz has envisioned.

Martin LaGrow gives us a wonderful reflection of Mr. Aziz’s thoughts in his response article: “Rethinking the Class Paradigm: MOOCs as a Community,” also for this blog, on March 13, 2013.  Mr. LaGrow’s words, “In a sense, the MOOC is a product of evolution.” Jump right up and off of the page and fall straight into my wheelhouse.  Yes sir, the MOOC is an evolution.  And the MOOC is not finished developing and adapting to the environment that we have built to house it.  LaGrow continues to ask, “…how can higher education leverage the strengths of the MOOC without also applying the limitations of the classroom?” I also wonder how this will play out.  I already pontificated on my philosophies of respect and trust.  Perhaps we should not limit our inquiries to the world of higher education.  The proving grounds of today’s collegians fall to the high schools and lower schools that first planted the seeds for the desire to acquire knowledge.  These institutions are changing more and more with the explosion of alternative education and the race between public, private, charter, and parochial schools to outdo each other and keep their enrollments up and funding flowing.

In any case, we all must agree, it is a changing world.  The way we teach and the way we learn is evolving.  MOOCs were only a distant concept just decades ago.  They were simply a dream of the Silicon Valley prophets of yesteryear.  Today, MOOCs are a reality.  Tomorrow, they will be a necessary ingredient in the delivery of a significant variety of knowledge on this planet.  It is a testament to Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”.  The MOOC that fits- will be the MOOC that survives.  Whether it is as a course or a community, that is the question.

Sources:

Aziz, H. (2013).  Rethinking the Class Paradigm:  The Rise and Potential Fall of MOOCs. Retrieved from https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2013/02/28/rethinking-the-class-paradigm-the-rise-and-potential-fall-of-moocs/

Holton, D. (2012). What’s the Problem with MOOCs?. Retrieved from http://edtechdev.wordpress.com/2012/05/04/whats-the-problem-with-moocs/

Kim, J. (2012). Open Online Courses Are No Substitutes for Classroom Learning. Retrieved from http://www.usnews.com/opinion/blogs/economic-intelligence/2012/06/29/open-online-courses-are-not-subsitutes-for-classroom-learning

LaGrow, M. (2013).  Rethinking the Class Paradigm: MOOC’s as a Community. Retrieved from https://hapaziz.wordpress.com/2013/03/13/rethinking-the-class-paradigm-moocs-as-a-community/

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Filed under education, education technology, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, Martin LaGrow, MOOCs, online education, virtual classrooms

Are Indie Games an Answer for Curriculum Development?

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

PBS has produced a mini-documentary titled, “The Creativity of Indie Video Games.” This seven-and-a-half minute exploration into the phenomenon of the independently-produced video game raises some interesting questions regarding the potential development of games specifically as education content tied directly to learning outcomes. While the mini-documentary itself does not address the education issue, watching the piece while keeping in mind education needs will trigger some pretty interesting “What if?” ideas. I invite you to have a look and post any thoughts you might have.

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Filed under computer games, creativity, crowdsourcing, education, education course content, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, Indie games, learning outcomes, simulation

Bringing Computer Games into the Teaching and Learning Environment

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

In conversations regarding the use of games within contexts of education, there is often great enthusiasm for the transformative potential of integrating computer games in the teaching and learning environment. Kurt Squire has observed that good games allow students to explore a wide range of knowledge areas by motivating them to understand rather than to memorize content—and even to expand their understanding to other related knowledge areas. In fact, the potential for computer games to positively effect learning outcomes has been observed and commented upon by numerous researchers. Even more broadly, entire educational environments can be built using game frameworks to improve learning outcomes by promoting elements of challenge, collaboration, and engagement.

In order to better comprehend the complexities of infusing educational activities with computer game content, it is instructive to consider the more generalized challenges of leveraging computer software and related technologies in the classroom. There are significant difficulties for faculty when it comes to utilizing new and continually-evolving technologies. The “technology-adoption cycle” described by Patricia McGee and Veronica Diaz depicts a timeline in which a faculty member requires about three to four academic terms to comfortably adopt a learning technology solution, and that it takes additional time to actually produce improved teaching and learning outcomes. In part, this is due to the hesitancy among faculty to experiment with the multiple tools that are concurrently available (which to choose?), and therefore faculty move much more slowly by examining a single tool or solution at any particular time. Ultimately, the relentless pace of change among available tools along with the relative lack of information regarding the best practices for tool adoption acts as a de-motivator to the use of any tool—computer games included. It has been further pointed out that students adopt new technology tools much more readily than faculty, and that institutions of higher education (particularly) suffer from limited budgets with which to support faculty, move courses online, and otherwise integrate the new tools.

While studies have made use of commercially available software as well as software developed by design for specific learning environments or applications, there is little research that applies to the specific scenario of game software created by individual instructors for use in their own classroom situations. The field is not completely unexplored in terms of research, but the work is spread over a wide variety of academic disciplines (including psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, and literature) with few linkages between them. This is due largely to the fact that the modern computer game software so highly prized by students for entertainment value and praised by educators for engagement potential is extremely time consuming, resource intensive, and cost prohibitive to develop. The amount of time available for the development and modification of gaming scenarios that can be used in the classroom as well as the availability of computing resources greatly influence the manner in which computer games can be utilized as a component of education.

We do know, however, that computer games have potential educational value. Computer games have been identified as useful instruments that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge through the adoption of specific learning strategies (a cultural characteristic of the information society), and that computer games present immersive experiences in which learners—the players—develop abilities to solve complex problems in a variety of situations. Further, faculty themselves attribute value to the use of computer games. In a 2002 study by McFarlane, Sparrowhawk, and Heald of opinions regarding the potential as well as the limits of computer games, faculty involved in secondary education reported very positive views of adventure games in particular (as a subset of the simulation computer game genre).

The opinions captured, however, were tempered by the admission that using these types of computer games in secondary teaching is made difficult by the lack of time to complete complex games and by the need to cover specific educational curriculum, for which the games are not tailored. Kurt Squire asserts that the main disadvantage of using computer games in the classroom is the time-consuming nature of thorough game play for both students and faculty. Begoña Gros further refines this sentiment by observing that developing the sequence for appropriate activity within a commercial game is a time consuming instructional design exercise in itself. Certainly, this is a significant challenging to utilizing off-the-shelf computer games for instructional purposes.

There appears to exist, then, a challenge and an opportunity for the education community to develop computer games that address both curricular specificity and resource-demanding characteristics. A Problem Statement for more in-depth research might be fashioned like this:

While there are indications that computer and video games may have positive impact on learning outcomes among secondary students, integration of game content within assignments and exercises is problematic due to 1) the lack of “off-the-shelf” games that align well with existing curricular standards, and 2) the great difficulty of developing game content specifically for particular content needs.

The key is to construct engaging computer games specifically to meet curricular needs, and to provide faculty with the tools to be able to develop the game content themselves (or with minimal assistance) in a time frame that is comparable to that for the development of other course content; i.e., in a matter of weeks and months rather than over the course of months or years (as is the case for commercial games).

In regards to developing games to meet curricular needs, educators and game developers have partnered to build content that might tap in to the vast potential of the education market. However, these efforts have yielded titles focused primarily on early childhood audiences such as Reader Rabbit, Math Blaster, and the Magic School Bus, to name a few. Unfortunately, there has been little progress in the development of games for the more sophisticated late-adolescent (secondary school) student. This is unusual, since this age group can be considered to be the core of the multi-billion dollar game market. While there have been some successful game franchises of greater sophistication, including the Civilization, Sim City, and Railroad Tycoon franchises, these titles regrettably do not meet the criteria of “ease of development” for faculty, nor are they inexpensive to produce.

The seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the concept of small-scale computer game development—at least for games that will engage students meaningfully—is that the quality and narrative complexity of these games dictates development cycles that go well beyond reasonable instructional design time frames. But must this always be the case? Fortunately there are other game genre options that are fit-for-purpose, customizable, and relatively inexpensive to develop and produce. Several researchers point to the Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which is a type of Interactive Fiction game that unfolds over a period of time, and that includes a series of puzzles to be solved collaboratively in order for the players to progress to subsequent stages. There are advantages in working with Alternate Reality Games: primarily, they are lo-fidelity (which means they do not require the resources for development as do typical high-end commercial computer games. As a result, the games are much less expensive to design and implement, and they can be aligned with curriculum to ensure that specific learning outcomes are met.

Looking deeper specifically at the Interactive Fiction component of Alternate Reality Games, we are able to identify a tremendous opportunity. There already exists an established form of the Interactive Fiction computer game genre that facilitates meaningful and engaging interaction with the player (student), and this type of Interactive Fiction (IF) game is simple enough for a single faculty member to develop compelling experiences. IF games are straightforward for players to understand the format and immediately engage in play, and IF games have the added benefit of being able to maintain the full form of the original text (on any topic) that is being implemented in the IF format.

The good news is that there are a large number of available game production middleware and gaming engines that have been developed by the industry in order to mitigate the rapidly growing costs of development. These game engines are available to educators at greatly discounted rates, and often free of charge. Inform (http://inform7.com) is one such game engine that has been created in order to facilitate the development of robust Interactive Fiction titles. Quoted from the Inform website:

Inform is a design system for interactive fiction based on natural language. It is a radical reinvention of the way interactive fiction is designed, guided by contemporary work in semantics and by the practical experience of some of the world’s best-known writers of IF…. Inform is used in the classroom by teachers at all levels from late elementary school through university. Playing and writing interactive fiction develops literacy and problem-solving skills and allows the development of historical simulations.

Given the cost of the Inform software tool (free), the learning curve for the game engine itself (fairly low with the program code grammar and syntax primarily English-based), and the relative ease with which custom game scenarios may be developed in short time frames by small teams or individuals, creating Interactive Fiction-based curricular activities for students at the secondary level and above is a strategy worth exploring further. There are other Interactive Fiction game engines such as Text Adventure Development System (TADS, http://www.tads.org/), Curveship (http://curveship.com/), and Adrift (www.adrift.co/) that may be utilized effectively as well, though they require more knowledge of computer programming conventions to varying degrees.

Interestingly, there may be a resurgence in Interactive Fiction taking place from the standpoint of computer entertainment. Leigh Alexander argues that the penetration of smart phones and tablets into the consumer market is creating a broad field of devices ideally suited for IF content. Additionally, Alexander states that the publishing industry is looking for new ways to leverage the ebook format, and IF fits the criteria of engagement and interactivity. In his article “Interactive fiction in the ebook era,” Keith Stuart makes a similar observation regarding IF and ebooks. At the 2011 Open Source Conference (OSCON) in Portland, Oregon, Ben Collins-Sussman presented “The Unexpected Resurgence of Interactive Fiction” (http://www.oscon.com/oscon2011/public/schedule/detail/19193), making the case that the development tools now becoming available are positioning IF for mainstream acceptance once again.

There may yet be a perfect storm forming for the development of games suited to the teaching and learning environment, and Interactive Fiction does appear to be a very likely genre for curriculum integration. The IF game engines are available and very accessible to the non- or novice-programmer. The format is well-suited to be an ebook replacement for the traditional classroom text book. Perhaps most importantly, IF game scenarios can be readily authored to meet specific learning objective needs, even to the assignment level. This is where potential for computer games in the classroom may ultimately be fully realized.

Just for fun, here’s a brief Inform tutorial.

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Filed under Alternate Reality Game, computer games, creativity, Curveship, eBooks, education, education course content, education technology, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, high school students, higher education, instructional design, Interactive Fiction, learning outcomes, narrative, smartphones, tablets, technology, Text Adventure Development System, vintage technology

Imagining the Future of Education through Science Fiction

by Hap Aziz

Readers of Science Fiction are quite often drawn to the predictive capacity of the genre. From rockets to robots to nanotechnology to cyborg implants to virtual reality… these things and more have been the domain of Science Fiction literature since early in the 20th century, and concepts like these are the foundation of the genre moving forward. It’s not difficult to see the seeds of our current technology in the story lines from past works by authors such as Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke. But Science Fiction has never been only about the technology. Indeed, Science Fiction has always asked the big “What If?” questions on topics such as social customs and norms, political systems, cultural conflicts, and the concept of identity that transcends gender, race, and even species. Consider novels such as Stranger in a Strange Land and Fahrenheit 451; television programs such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek; movies such as Blade Runner and Planet of the Apes–Science Fiction has always captured our collective imagination with the Big Idea.

Given the breadth of Big Ideas in the body of Science Fiction literature, it’s rather surprising that the topic of education has not received a more robust treatment, other than mention as supporting plot elements, for the most part. And it the majority of those mentions, the format of education isn’t that much different than the model in place today: the interaction between a student and teacher, often within a cohort of students, usually in a face-to-face technology mediated environment. In episodes of Star Trek, set hundreds of years into the future, there are scenes of young children in what appears to be fairly standard-looking classrooms (with more tech hardware). Consider Yoda teaching the Jedi younglings like an elementary school teacher from the 19th century. Battle School in Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game is basically a military boarding academy with video games and zero gravity gymnasiums. Even in Flowers for Algernon, a story in which the main character’s IQ is dramatically improved through a surgical procedure performed on his brain, Charlie still learns primarily by reading books. In the majority of these stories, while the human capacity to learn or the actual learning process is enhanced by technology, the act of learning is fundamentally unchanged from the way in which people have learned since the beginning of time.

There are, however, a few notable exceptions. In John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War, soldiers’ learning is significantly enhanced through the use of the BrainPal, a neural implant that can download information directly into the human brain at a tremendous rate. Similarly, in the movie The Matrix, people can acquire new skills simply by downloading the appropriate data file. This is also quite like the technology used in Joss Whedon’s television series Dollhouse, in which the brain is literally a blank slate ready for a completely different mind (with it’s own set of memories and skills) to be imprinted. In the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “The Inner Light,” an entire lifetime of events is loaded into Captain Picard’s brain in 20 minutes–with an artifact of that experience being the ability to play an instrument he never saw before he “lived” his alternate life.

What all those exceptions have in common is that they fundamentally alter the method by which information is loaded into the human brain, and they do so in a digital rather than analog fashion. The result is that the time required to load the desired information is much reduced from the traditional input methods of using our own analog senses to acquire knowledge, then disciplining the mind to retain that knowledge and training the body to function appropriately (memorization and practice). All other methods of instruction, no matter how we reinvent them or try to integrate assistive technology, still encounter the analog gateway (and in some cases, barrier) of our senses. The “data transfer rate” effectively comes down to the learner’s ability to effectively absorb what’s coming through that gateway. I remember when I was in high school and I wanted to record songs from my record albums onto cassette tape so that I could take them with me to play on my Walkman. I had a cassette recording deck connected to my record turntable, but I could only record in real time–I could only record at the actual speed that the records played across that analog gateway.

If I’m imagining the future of education as a storyline in Science Fiction, I see the need for a digital-to-analog converter that serves as a high-speed interface to the brain. That’s what would enable the story examples I cited above, facilitating the speedy transfer of knowledge and possibly eliminating (or minimizing) the need to practice for skills mastery. Right now it takes a lifetime to acquire a lifetime’s worth of knowledge, and even then there is no guarantee that we can successfully access more than a fraction of what we have acquired. Now when I want to digitize my CD collection so I can store it on my portable MP3 player, the ripping process takes a fraction of the time as playing all the songs.

Perhaps I’ve planted the seeds for a Science Fiction story I should write: What would it be like if several lifetimes flashed before our eyes at the moment of death? Somehow we’d have to experience all those lifetimes… and that’s just another way of saying we’d need to figure out how to become life-long learners several times over.

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Filed under education, education technology, future technology, Hap Aziz, life-long learning, Science Fiction

Education Delivery within 30 Minutes, or Your Money Back!

by Hap Aziz

No, education is not like a pizza (nor is it like a box of chocolates), a commodity to be delivered–even if there is a transaction involved. However, many people do equate the process of educating with the task of information delivery, where students’ minds are vessels to be filled by the wisdom of some source. While that might be a component of the very complex and textured process of learning, it isn’t everything of course. One of the challenges to understanding the process is in identifying what all the components are, and after decades of “research,” it appears to me there are still major gaps in our understanding.

The article “Is Khan Academy a real ‘education solution’?” written by Valerie Strauss for The Washington Post is a more critical look at the approach the Khan Academy takes by “flipping” the classroom. I like the points that Strauss makes in her piece, especially regarding the issue of learning efficiency, and how we might come to know the efficiency of the process. While Strauss asks the question, I want to point out that we truly do not measure what is going on in the brain in terms of learning and cognition–not in a way that would give us a very clear and accurate picture of the effectiveness of various teaching practices. Last year I wrote a blog entry on that subject, “Practicing 18th Century Education in the 21st Century Classroom.” Also, it is worth mentioning that while there are common themes that may be effective for large groups of learners, the most efficient education processes are going to depend on customization to the learner. There will be no one-size-fits-all solutions. To a large degree, the Khan Academy videos fall in this bucket, but there are avenues for customization through the integration of interactive elements that “direct” the video clips–though this will add greatly to the complexity and cost of production.

Ultimately, though, if we are to know with certainty what education processes work for individual learners, we need to be able to take a look at what’s going on in learners’ minds. Outside of the occasional NASA experiment, we’re really not doing a whole lot of kind of research.

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Filed under education, education technology, effective practices, Hap Aziz, neuroscience